For both Blue Valley Southwest and visiting St. James Academy, the going got tough on Friday night. But as the old adage says, it was St. James who got going when the bell tolled loudest, escaping with their first ever Eastern Kansas League victory by a score of 12-7.
“The defense played amazing,” head coach Tom Radke declared afterwards. “We challenged them, straight up, as men. The offense wasn’t clicking so we told them it would be a manhood game and they stepped up and played like it in the second half.”
What was a game of stalemate for the first half, with the opposing Thunder clinging to a 9-7 lead at the break, finished with a flurry of drama in the waning minutes.
After the Timberwolves offense finally hit a spark late in the third quarter, sophomore quarterback Will Eldridge orchestrated a calculated drive that wound up dwindling the clock down to less than eight minutes remaining in the game. With the ball on the 11-yard line and the home side down five, Southwest would cough up the football for the third time in the game, surrendering a key opportunity to regain the lead.
The party wasn’t over though.
Forced to punt from their own 18-yard line after the Timberwolves defensive front punished the ground game for St. James, the Thunder allowed Andy Orrick’s bunch another chance from just 34-yards out and 6:35 left on the clock.
Again, it would be a turnover that helped St. James recapture momentum after Zac Storm leaped up at his own 10-yard line to pick a pass intended for senior receiver Daniel Foulon. The Thunder sideline erupted, their traveling fans behind the bench clapping with excitement as time crept towards victory.
Then, the unthinkable - another offensive mistake for K-State quarterback commitment Sammy Wheeler and the offense.
“The defense for sure won that game for us,” admitted the senior signal caller in reflection. “We didn’t keep drives alive and didn’t have enough big plays on offense and that’s on me. We’ll get there for sure, but that will come when we get more disciplined.”
“I’m just trying to make plays,” continued Wheeler. “I made some good ones tonight but I also made a bunch of mistakes.”
Fumbling at his own 25-yard line was one of Wheeler’s most costly errors, recovered by senior defensive back Carter Gehl with just five minutes remaining.
Pummeling the Thunder with a steady ground attack of senior backs Jack Sailer and Dane Pedersen, a now hungry but exhausted Southwest attack was hoping the third time would be the charm as referees signaled fourth and two from the two-yard line.
“We went dive, dive, dive and then that last play, we went for a boot thinking they would load the box and we could get (Eldridge) off the edge,” recalls Timberwolves head coach Anthony Orrick of the definitive play which occurred two minutes left until the final whistle. “Maybe we didn’t block the right guy I guess, but we couldn’t punch it in. Just bad luck.”
Stopped in the backfield by a swarm of St. James defenders, namely game MVP Travis Pickert, Eldridge was brought to the ground and the goal line stand proved enough, finally, for the visitors to hold on.
“This is the best game of my life,” Pickert said. “I’ve never played like this before.”
“I think they got tired at the end of the game and that made it easier to get around them, but I’ve also conquered mentally. Last year, I played well but never conquered the mental aspects of it. (Tonight) was all mental and I felt great because I knew we could do it and we did just by locking in.”
In the case of the now 0-2 Timberwolves, the evening serves as another painful reminder of just how close the roster is to tasting a win. Orrick knows the pieces are in place, it’s just a matter of getting them in sync.
“It’s a resilient group of guys,” the coach finished. “Adversity shows up every single day and they react to it and that I’m proud of.”
“We did some good things but we just have to, again, execute and finish drives.”
For Radke and company, now 1-1, it certainly wasn’t pretty but it’s a great example of living and learning within his program’s new home.
“Yeah, it’s the first EKL win and I hadn’t thought about that yet,” humbly stated the head coach. “We’ll take that into next week with Gardner, but there’s no gimme’s in this league; they’re all tough. We just need to take it one play at a time at this point.”
Standing 6-foot-5, Pickert, who also added the team’s lone touchdown as a tight end off a 21-yard pass from Wheeler in the first half, feels the program’s first win of the season and in the EKL is much, much sweeter. It could be just the type of fuel the Thunder can feast on for weeks ahead.
“There are many more to come,” the defender said smiling. “This is a good thing.”